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Sunday, 1 April 2007

Cycling the towpath - in distinguished company

My rainy route to work Originally uploaded by Sibad.
I can cycle to the University by joining the towpath of the Soho Loop off the Birmingham Mainline Canal where it runs parallel to Clissold Street in Hockley - a mile from home - and following it almost to the top of Farmer's Locks where I cross a bridge and take a right onto the Birmingham and Worcester Canal, passing the edge of the country's greatest waterway intersection, and heading westward to Edgbaston, leaving the canal a hundred yards or so further on from this picture and surfacing via the steps up to Somerset Road.
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Who cycles? Power and influence sometimes work best - for good or evil -when unseen to most of us. Do you know how many ministers, academics,barristers, surgeons, senior civil servants and other establishment figures are navigating our urban streets by bicycle? More than you might imagine. The car is increasingly the chariot of the masses and the object of proletarian desire. It therefore has a powerful resonance in a democracy which makes moves against this sacred artifact something best kept under the radar. Recall too that for a public figure to be associated with walking or cycling is to risk the inference that such ways of getting about are preferable to motoring. In other words to cycle or walk is not simply a choice it is frequently interpreted as a public political gesture. Any public figure who becomes associated with cycling or walking will be transferred within months or less to the ranks of the slightly odd or the amusingly eccentric with every public statement they make thereafter on any subject under the sun prefixed with the words like "the well known 'pedestrian'" or "the '(insert age) year old cycling enthusiast'". Even an obituary headline will contain some similar reminder of their distinctive association with their preferred way of getting from A to B. This is not a call to apathy, just a reminder that power is sometimes most effectively exercised behind the scenes or by quiet example. That said, Jeremy Paxman cycles the capital. "It is easily the quickest way around London, faster than bus, tube or taxi. You can predict precisely how long every journey will take, regardless of traffic jams, tube strikes or leaves on the line. It provides excellent exercise. It does not pollute the atmosphere. It does not clog up the streets." Vivienne Westwood regularly bicycles through the streets of London wearing a mad-looking pair of shoes from Balenciaga and Gilles Tapie's recent book of photographs of the dancer Sylvie Guillem shows she’s an urban cyclist. Eric Clapton collects and rides Italian road bikes while Bea Campbell wrote "In the context of debates about identity politics - are you gay or straight, nationalist or republican, British or English and so on - I would ask, 'Do you ride a bike?' I love everything about the machine - the sensation of the tyres on the road, the mobility - and I love the fact that you have this intimate relationship with the elements, and the landscape." Michelle Pfeiffer cycles. Madonna rides with Guy Ritchie and little Rocco and no doubt a procession of reluctant but well paid heavies. Robin Williams owns lots of road bikes and rides with his friend Lance Armstrong. Ex-Shadow Secretary of State Bernard Jenkin drives to his London home on Sunday evening and cycles the rest of the week: "...everywhere, every day - to Westminster, to meetings in the West End and the City, to the Albert Hall, to the Royal Opera House. Cycling offers a huge financial advantage and it keeps me fit." Des Lynam wrote in the Telegraph: “I decide on the spur of the moment to fly home...I see my loved ones and ride my bicycle in the fresh Sussex air.” Jarvis Cocker cycles in town. Jeff Banks and Paul Smith are avid cyclists and Smith's business has sponsored cycle teams. We may yet see them design proper day clothes for cycling in the city (:)). Sheryl Crow, a singer but also Lance Armstrong's girlfriend,rode close to 70 miles at the recent Ride for the Roses in Austin and speaks of writing a song about cycling. Jon Bon Jovi is a mountain biker sponsoring an MTB team and even though Jeremy Clarkson is rude about cyclists in general he and his wife keep fit on Raleigh Pioneers. "Don't listen to what I say, watch what I'm pedalling (?)" Grateful Dead rent studio space from Marin and their guitarist Bob Weir is a mountain biker, and often rides with mountain bike co-founding father, Gary Fisher. Weir said: "Bicycles are almost as good as guitars for meeting girls." Sir Rocco Forte took up cycling when his love of endurance sport led him to triathlons. Of all the sports he pursues cycling is "the thing I love best...I am addicted." John Kerry (remember him?) is a keen road cyclist, owning a Serotta Ottrott. God help me, even President Bush took up mountain biking in 2004 "Nothing compares to getting your heart rate up to 170-something, riding hard for an hour-twenty, getting off and not hurting, as opposed to 24 minutes of running, at the end of which I hurt. When you ride a bike and you get your heart rate up and you're out, after 30 or 40 minutes your mind tends to expand; it tends to relax." Yes well. That's one of the most coherent sequence of words I've ever heard from those lips. I've passed Jon Snow on his Dutch city bicycle near Trafalgar Square. He probably persuaded Paxman it was the best way to get around London. I've used Snow's advice about getting cool in the studio after a fast ride. Apply an ice cube to the temples and back of the neck. Snow says his "... whole day is built around meetings that can be achieved around bike rides. My contract actually offers me a free car from my home to my office and back, but I suppose I am addicted to cycling." Alexei Sayle may write about cars in the Independent but he commutes by bicycle and, with Jon Snow, is a customer of Condor Cycles along with Adam Woodyatt, Jill Halfpenny, Mick Jagger, and Chris Tarrant and wife who've bought a tandem. Retired Treasury mandarin Sir Steve Robson always rode to work and still gets off road in the Sussex Downs sometimes. Boris Johnson MP cycles to and from Parliament and has argued for cyclists being able to use mobile phones on the road as they only endanger themselves unlike drivers doing the same thing. The Prime Minister of Belgium, is a cyclist and a fan of cycle-sport. He said: "In politics, one can learn some things from cycling, such as how to have character and courage. Sometimes in politics there isn't enough of those things.” Lee Iacocca ("when you die, if you've got five real friends, then you've had a great life") former boss at Ford and then GM, invented the the SUV, repented and is now into electric bikes and rides his company's products. He said: "After 50 years in the auto business, I'm bringing you the future of transportation - and it's electric!" Kraftwerk's 1980s Tour de France album is a classic and they do other bicycle things though they are a bit reclusive, which brings me back to my original point. I agree that most of these people are celebs rather than people in government or the professions - but I would be undermining my case if I started on another list here. I though Belgian PM and a Conservative shadow minister would be OK though (:)), though I can't resist my favourite European politician, Romano Prodi, one of Italy's most successful post-war politicians, lives in Bologna and goes to work on his bicycle. In my v.small way, I never ever advocate cycling or walking in the lectures I give around the UK about local government, but in one corner of the room there's always a folding bicycle and when I submit my expenses there's always the reference to "20p a mile for the journeys I've done by cycle", and when I sign into hotels the space for a car number plate remains in-your-face blank, and some may even notice that for a 65 year old I look in rude health cutting quite a figure in the suited self that emerges from my wet wear on a rainy winter morning. My favourite famous cyclist is Emil Zola but he never went on about it. He fought for justice and wrote like an avenging angel - and happened to love cycling.

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Simon Baddeley